The arraignment of a former president Tuesday on charges of violating the Espionage Act was breathtaking.
What happens after everyone exhales?
The consequences down the road for Donald Trump could be even more stunning, potentially including a conviction that could send the former resident of the White House to live in a federal facility of an entirely different sort.
But in the shorter term, likely stretching past the next presidential election, the historic development had an air of deja vu − of Trump enmeshed in yet another controversy that would have ended the public career of almost anyone else.
Instead, he has managed to use charges that he mishandled the nation’s most sensitive secrets, imperiling U.S. security, to strengthen his standing as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.
Can an event be so cataclysmic and yet have so few repercussions, at least for a time?
It is a sign of our times, and of the pressures on the legal system, that there was a roiling debate outside the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. courthouse over whether Trump’s 37-count indictment proves the principle that no person is above the law or is evidence of what his supporters call the weaponization of the Justice Department by his political opponents.
“WITCH HUNT,” Trump declared on Truth Social before he left for the courtroom in Miami. He called special counsel Jack Smith “the Thug” and suggested without substantiation that evidence might have been planted in the boxes of government documents found in Mar-a-Lago.
“They taint everything that they touch, including our Country, which is rapidly going to HELL!”
The vehicle of former President Donald Trump drives slowly past Trump supporters outside the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. Courthouse on Tuesday, June 13, 2023, in Miami, Fla. Former President Donald Trump was appeared in federal court to be arraigned Tuesday afternoon, facing charges that he illegally retained national security documents after leaving office.
In a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll released this week, 34% of the Republican and independent voters surveyed − the voters Trump would likely target in the next campaign − said his multiple legal troubles make them less likely to support him. But a 51% majority said the various investigations made no difference to them, and another 11% said they made them more likely to support him.
“They don’t care about the indictment,” first lady Jill Biden said Monday in comments to Democratic donors in New York, although President Joe Biden has maintained a deliberate silence. “So that’s a little shocking, I think.”
Trump was arraigned two months ago in a New York state court, charged with 34 criminal counts of falsifying business records connected to paying hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels. An inquiry is continuing in Fulton County, Georgia, into allegations he tried to overturn the 2020 election results. The Department of Justice hasn’t completed its investigation into his role in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.
Even so, Trump in recent months has widened his lead in national polls for the Republican nomination. In the USA TODAY survey, Trump was at 48% and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 23%. No other challenger scored higher than 6%.
Some of the longer shots in the field have criticized Trump, among them former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson. But most of Trump’s rivals have found themselves defending him, albeit with various degrees of enthusiasm.
DeSantis suggested Trump has been treated by a different standard than 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who was faulted for referencing classified material while using a private email server when she was secretary of state. “I think there needs to be one standard of justice in this country,” DeSantis said. Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, another GOP presidential contender, made a similar point. “The American people are exhausted by the prosecutorial overreach, double standards and vendetta politics,” she said.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy actually showed up outside the Miami courthouse Tuesday to reiterate his promise to pardon Trump if he wins the White House in 2024. Haley said she might be “inclined” to pardon Trump, if given the opportunity.
Tuesday’s history may have felt familiar because of Trump’s own past.
He has more experience than any other modern American leader in dealing with disasters centered on his own behavior. Even before the trials of his post-presidency, he was twice impeached by the House of Representatives, although the Senate didn’t convict him.
His script for survival: Deny the allegations, denounce the investigators, accuse the system of being rigged, and launch fundraising appeals to continue his fight.
Early Tuesday afternoon, CNN showed footage of a subdued Trump leaving his golf club afternoon to board a black SUV for the ride to the courthouse. He looked a bit dejected, even when an unseen woman offscreen could be heard shouting encouragement. He made a perfunctory wave in her direction.
Reporters on the 13th floor of the courthouse said Trump looked glum as his lawyer, Todd Blanche, pleaded not guilty on his behalf.
But Tuesday night, at a rally at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Trump was his familiar defiant self.
“Today we witnessed the most evil and heinous abuse of power in the history of our country,” he told a crowd of supporters, denouncing President Joe Biden and the prosecutors. “This day will go down in infamy.”
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